"Dear little Black girl with the big name. Correct them. Every time."
My name is Jessyca. Spelled J-e-s-s-y-c-a. Heavy importance on the Y.
My mother explained to me that my first name came from a book. She was reading an exciting novel while five months pregnant with me and came across a character named Jessyca. She couldn't stop thinking of the spelling of the name after she put the book down. It was a perfect name that had stood the test of time, but the creativity in spelling gave its originality, uniqueness, and flava'. She had told me many times that she knew I would have those characteristics, even before entering this world. We also like to laugh that she got my name from a book, and I ended up being a writer of stories and a teacher of books to young people. The name Jessyca was meant for me from the start.
I think I have spelled my name a million times to others over the years to make sure that people honor and respect my identity. Most times, when I spell it for individuals, I receive various responses.
"Oh, that's a unique way to spell your name!"
"Really? I never thought if it is spelled with that way!"
"Oh, my goodness! That's a beautiful way to change it from the traditional way."
"Oh... it's spelled how? Well, that is...is... that's interesting."
My spelling of Jessyca is always something people love to examine and discuss. And every time someone asks my name, I say it proudly and spell it out to reflect and heal from the first Black Soul Scar of my educational experience.
My name is Jessyca. J-e-s-s-y-c-a.
My first Black Soul Scar in education came from my first-grade teacher.
I had just transferred to a new school after moving to a new district. Leaving Flint Community Schools and going to this new place with a weird name, Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools, was terrifying for a six-year-old. I had so many worries when I entered the first day.
Would I get lost heading to the bus stop? Would I be able to find my classroom? Would I make any friends? Would my teacher like me? The stress for a young mind was enormous.
The first days of my new school went well. My school's name was Dye Elementary, Dye EL, for short. On the first day, I looked down my new hallway and saw my best friend from my old school. She had moved away a couple of months before school ended in kindergarten, and I was so sad that I had lost my friend. And I was lucky enough to move to a new school, and I discovered the treasure that she had moved there too! We ran down the hall to one another and hugged tight with an embrace of love and comfort. She and I were back together, which meant this process of me attending Dye El might not be so bad after all.
She introduced me to the friends she had made with the early move to the school, and everyone was so lovely to me and spoke to me like I had been there all along, and they helped me find my new classroom. The next couple of days moved smoothly with me learning how the lunch line worked, discovering the wonders of the gigantic playground, and walking around the halls with ease. No conflicts came until the end of the week of my first days of first grade.
Friday started like all the other days. Lessons, coloring, recess, and fun activities filled the time, and I was ready to go home and share more stories of my new school with my mom and dad at the dinner table.
My teacher at this new school was extensive on how we needed to end the day. It included making sure our desk area was clean, checking around the floor for any messes that needed to be tidied up, and pushing in our chairs before we went toward the door. I was busying myself with my end-of-the-day duties when I heard her call for me over to speak with her.
I walked forward to her, wondering if I had forgotten to do any of my chores to end the day. I mentally went through my list:
Yes, you put your crayons away. They are in your bag.
I tossed out my trash in my lunchbox, and it was sitting next to my bookbag.
I had been kind to everyone.
I was working on learning everyone's name.
To me, I had done all I needed to end the week, but maybe I had forgotten something. Or perhaps it was something for new kids since she only called me.
"Jessyca, I have something that I need for you to take home. Make sure to give it to your mommy and daddy. Be responsible. Can you do this for me?"
I nodded my double ponytailed head to remember to give the note to my parents successfully. I could handle that. I smiled at the teacher and made sure to respond, "Yes, ma'am. My mom always told me to address an adult adequately, and I wouldn't get caught not saying ma'am or sir to an adult, especially at a new school.
"I am going to pin this note to your shirt so that you don't lose it. Just make sure it stays on when you travel on the bus and walk home."
With pale, wrinkled hands, my teacher reached over and fastened the envelope containing the letter to my chest, covering my heart. She was a kind woman throughout the week to me. Her salt and pepper hair was medium length, and her voice held your attention but was comforting and made me feel welcomed during my first week. My mind wondered what was inside.
I wondered if I had gotten a weekly award. My teacher had mentioned that there would be rewards for spelling bee quiz takers, certificates for getting better at my math, and I could be rewarded for being a good student in the class. It had to be great news for her to pin this message to my chest safely. I couldn't wait to see what my teacher had sent to my parents about me.
I went back to my seat, pushed in my chair, and placed myself at the end of the line for us to head out the bus when the bell rang. I waved goodbye to my teacher as I stepped out of the classroom to start my weekend.
Once home, Mom asked, "How was school today?" as I entered my townhouse and tossed my backpack near the couch.
"It was great. The teacher sent a note to you." I plopped down in a chair at the dining room table, preparing to hear what was inside the note from my teacher.
My mom walked over, unfastened the safety pin that kept the note secured to my chest, and wandered back into the kitchen while opening the envelope. While on a mid stroll, I noticed that she stopped walking while reading the note from my teacher. She moved her head furiously while reading each line and began to frown at the sent message.
I began to worry, and I reflected on the week, wondering if there was something that I had done that I had forgotten to tell my mother. My mama is one that you better tell her first before someone else does, or her wrath would be terrible. But I couldn't think of what I could have possibly done to be looking so irritated at the message written on the paper.
"Ma. Did I do something wrong?"
She slowly folded up the paper and put it in her pocket. I could tell that her annoying level was high, which wasn't right for anyone to experience. She even took a deep breath in and out, which showed that she was doing everything she could to control her anger.
"Nope. You are fine. Nothing for you to worry about."
I blinked with confusion at her statement. "So, I am not in trouble? Because you look like you want to yell."
She turned in my direction and smirked at my comment. She was angry, but not at me, which confused me further and made me wonder what was written in the note from my teacher.
"No. You aren't in trouble. Why don't you go and watch tv for a while before your dad gets home and we have dinner."
I did as she instructed. I got up from my seat, went into the living room, and clicked the channel to watch Looney Tunes. Eventually, my younger brother and sister joined me, and the three of us relaxed while mom banged pots and pans in the kitchen to finish dinner for the family. Later that night, while eavesdropping on a conversation with my parents, I found out why my mother was so angry.
I also found out the contents of the letter.
My mother suggested that we all play in the basement for a while before getting ready for bed. My brother and sister were always thick as thieves and inseparable during playtime, so it was easy for me to slip away and fake like I had to use the bathroom.
My parents were in the kitchen talking, and I was hiding around the corner. When I heard the issue with the letter home to my parents, I wanted to run upstairs to my room, crying.
My first-grade teacher wrote a letter to my parents, correcting them on the spelling of my name. She felt the need to tell them that my name was wrong, and choosing to spell it with a "y" was illiterate and incorrect. My teacher said that about my identity.
My parents were discussing what they should with the contents of the letter. My mother was angry, and she was ready to march up to that school and let that woman have it for talking about her baby's name. My father was his usual calm self, saying he didn't want to cause me additional trouble since this teacher was bold enough to correct them about a name choice for their child. I didn't stay for the whole conversation. I slinked away, troubled and crushed that my teacher didn't like me.
I remember lying in bed that night, thinking over what my teacher thought of me from listening to the letter's contents.
My teacher thinks my name is wrong.
My teacher thinks my name is ugly.
My teacher thinks my name is silly.
My teacher thinks my name is bad.
My teacher thinks I am bad.
My teacher thinks I am ugly.
My teacher thinks I am wrong.
I drifted to sleep that Friday night with tears dropping from my eyes, leaving puddles of pain on my pillow's canvas.
For the rest of my days of first grade, I went to school each day, trying to find enjoyment to concentrate on the letter from my teacher. I loved my classmates. I loved recess and playing tag football. I loved to learn and focus on how to write and read. I loved so many things about school, but I couldn't help looking at my teacher and thinking of what she said to my parents about my name. I would secretly sit there at my tiny desk, hating my teacher for disrespecting my parents and the name that I loved so much.
I would make sure to change the "i" she would slip on my notes with a "y" when she started to give assignments back. I did it so much that she eventually gave up her efforts and used the correct spelling. I found myself continually spelling my name out loud to anyone so that they knew who I was and wouldn't get confused with the conventional spelling. I wrote my name boldly on my assignments, making sure the "y" jumped out for those who needed to know that I was Jessyca, not Jessica.
My mom became a classroom icon with my friends. She was always friendly when she came in with snacks, and she volunteered at every class party to hand out goodies. She even dressed as Mrs. Santa Clause before Christmas and made up an elaborate story of Santa being "too busy in his workshop" to come by, but she would write down what kids wanted for Christmas and deliver the message. My mother was the model classroom parent from that year until I finished elementary school (my father too, who eventually became our school Santa). I later figured out that it was a way for her to keep an eye on me with this teacher and find ways to glare at her at holiday parties. My mother is a calculated genius in the skills of petty.
I didn't talk about this Black Soul Scar with my parents until I was 43 years old. We got on the topic during a Christmas gathering at my grandmother's house. My mother was surprised at how much I remembered that day and how strongly it affected me in moving forward with my pride in my name. I admitted to listening in on the conversation and told my parents that the teacher's actions hurt but propelled me to understand pride in one's culture and name.
There is a uniqueness in choosing individual names in many cultures. What tends to happen, especially in educational settings, is teachers, especially white teachers, either make fun, degrade, or change students' names. I can't share the number of times kids are shocked when I say, "What do you want me to call you? Because I will learn it and spell it correctly."
I have heard students say so many statements of the pain from teachers not respecting them as individuals with their names. I understand this pain. I still carry it from my first-grade teacher. It's a scar that is hard to heal, but each time I spell my name for someone, I do it with pride and confidence, hoping that the scab of this scar can arrive and signal the beginning of healing.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK https://msmccall.substack.com/p/reconstructing-public-education to read yesterday’s blog post by Ashley McCall (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).